Threats to National Maritime Security: China and U.S. Federal Agencies

U.S. cargo aboard a U.S.-flagged, non-Jones Act vessel (file image)

Published Oct 21, 2019 2:51 PM by Denise Krepp

Last week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on “China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative: Implications for the Global Maritime Supply Chain.” Witnesses testified about China’s maritime commercial strength and the decline of the US international fleet. Both are threats to the US national security, and solving them requires some out-of-the-box thinking.

While the Chinese government is deliberately devoting resources to building a strong commerical and military presence at sea, U.S. federal agencies are systematically destroying the U.S. international fleet. Exhibit A is the long-delayed cargo-preference rules.

In September 2009, I joined the Maritime Administration and was tasked with writing cargo preference regulations.  By law, companies who received U.S. federal financing were required to ship (at the time) 75 percent of the items purchased on U.S. flag ships. This included items financed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Absent regulations, enforcment of the cargo preference rule was difficult. We convened a multi-agency group to draft the regulations, and I assumed that we’d be done within a year. 

Ten years later, the cargo preference rules still haven’t been written, and the cargo preference requirement has been dropped from 75 percent to 50 percent. And as a result, the U.S. has only 80 blue water ships, a fleet that will not be sufficient for a two-theater conflict. 

Out-of-the-box thinking is needed to stabilize and grow the U.S. international fleet. The Office of Management and Budget, USAID, the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture are the ones slow-rolling the Maritime Administration’s national maritime strategy. As one option, Congress can cut their budgets until they agree to release it.

We need strong cargo preference rules and a rejuvenated merchant fleet sooner rather than later, because the next major conflict may come without warning. As MARAD and the Department of Defense have warned for years, a full-scale war will require a robust U.S. international fleet with fully trained crews and redundancy. We won’t have that if we continue on the trajectory that we are on today.

K. Denise Rucker Krepp is a former Coast Guard officer and former chief counsel of the Maritime Administration.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.